Vaughn Palmer: Seat redistribution is a wake-up call for B.C. Liberals

Opinion: Party must figure out how to attract voters in B.C.’s urban majority

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VICTORIA — When the New Democrats moved this week to redraw provincial electoral districts to accommodate an increasingly urban population, the B.C. Liberals reacted angrily at the prospect of losing some rural, northern and Interior strongholds.

The proposed shift would further erode representation for the North, the Kootenays and other geographically dispersed parts of the province, forcing constituents to travel even greater distances to meet with their MLA, predicted Opposition critic Mike de Jong.

De Jong was house leader for the Liberals when they launched the last electoral boundary commission in 2013. Then, the Liberals limited the commission’s leeway to redraw boundaries by freezing representation in three regions — the North, the Kootenays and the central Interior. The protected enclaves totalled 17 seats, roughly 20 per cent of the legislature.

The New Democrats protested at the time and predicted it would result in court challenges. But eventually they voted to approve the final report of the independent boundary commission, headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Thomas Melnick, concluding it had done a fair job given the constraints imposed by the government.


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The resulting 87-seat electoral map was the basis for the 2017 and 2020 elections. The Liberals lost their legislative majority in the first of those elections and had their worst showing in three decades in the second. They nevertheless won 13 of the 17 protected seats in both elections, the NDP just four.

The enabling legislation for a new boundary commission, introduced in the house Monday by Attorney-General David Eby, eliminates the Liberals’ protected enclaves. The commission  — headed by a judge and including the chief electoral officer and a nominee appointed by the premier in consultation with the leader of the Opposition — will be given a freer hand in those regions of B.C.

Contrary to Liberal fears, that does not necessarily mean a halving of representation in the North nor a complete disregard for the challenges of representing geographically dispersed communities and hard to access parts of the province.

Rather the commission has to balance several principles: “Geographic considerations, including the accessibility, size or physical configuration of any part of British Columbia. Demographic considerations, including communities of interest and the sparsity, density or rate of growth of the population of any part of B.C. And the availability and means of communication and transportation between various parts of B.C.”

The prime goal is to redraw election boundaries to approximate representation by population. But even there the commission has leeway under guidelines laid down by the courts: “To achieve the principle of representation by population, the commission may deviate from the electoral (average) by no more than 25 per cent, plus or minus.”


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In the last distribution, 10 seats were approved where the population exceeded the minus threshold by between 30 and 60 per cent. Three are currently held by the New Democrats, seven by the Liberals.

Several of those might survive the cut under an escape clause in the NDP bill: “The commission may exceed the 25 per cent deviation principle if it considers it necessary to provide for effective representation. … It may take into account a manageable geographic size for electoral districts (and/or) any special demographic considerations, including communities of interest.”

One could imagine the commission preserving Stikine, with its large Indigenous population, or creating a new seat to provide representation to coastal communities reachable only by boat or float plane.

The greater impact on the Liberals may come when the commission moves to redress electoral boundaries at the high end of the population scale. Eby estimated that a half a million people have been added to the population since the last electoral distribution. Some will be living in ridings where the population is approaching the plus end of the 25 per cent scale.

To redress the imbalances, Eby’s legislation allows the commission to add as many as six seats to the current 87 seat house. Most would be in the faster-growing parts of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

In the years when the Liberals formed majority governments, they did well in those regions. But in the 2017 election, the New Democrats won six of the 10 seats that were the most populous at the time of the last redistribution. In 2020, they shut out the Liberals in all but one of them.


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Based on the results of the last two elections, the B.C. Liberals will be starting from behind in contesting for the half dozen seats that would likely be added to areas already represented by the NDP.

But the New Democrats made their breakthrough in 2017 by courting those places on issues like housing affordability, child care and bridge tolls that the Liberals downplayed or ignored. The NDP increased its hold in the act of opportunism that was last fall’s snap election.

Those three no-longer protected electoral enclaves are represented by 13 Liberal MLAs, almost half of the current 28-member Opposition caucus.

If the Liberals hope to move beyond that dwindling base and return to government some day, they need to do what the New Democrats did, and face up to the demographic reality of a province that is increasingly urban, younger and diverse.

I’m sure the thought never crossed David Eby’s mind that his boundary commission bill might do the Liberals a favour. Still, the Opposition has needed a wake-up call since 2017 and maybe this is it. 


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